All the things we sign, and the things we buy, ain’t gonna keep us together - it’s just a matter of time.
Remember when the shattering of life as we knew it by COVID-19 in March was billed as some sort of reckoning for English football? As an opportune moment for a sport increasingly viewed as drowning in its own muddy water to clear its name and use its opulence as a force for good? To hit reset and return to day zero?
Now seven months into the throes of this pandemic, time for a quick progress report. Well, for a kick-off, plans to re-introduce supporters to stadia on October have been delayed for potentially another six months. Last week started with the summer transfer window shutting, with the combined expenditure of the 20 Premier League clubs in this period totting up at £1.2 billion. It ended with England’s top-flight announcing a new pay-per-view scheme, whereby the majority of games will be available for a cool £14.95 each, at least until fans begin to return. In short: nothing to see here, folks. Business as usual.
So, as the Premier League milks its cash cows even more tastelessly than previously, just what will become of the typical match-goer? Perhaps they have morphed into another faceless patron to another money-spinning corporation. Perhaps they have become helicopter parents; out of the picture by just the right amount so they can still keep tabs from afar, while being grossly overcharged for this purported privilege. Or perhaps they’ve just become utterly dispensable. Football without fans is nothing, they stressed. They were wrong - it’s actually £14.95 a pop.
This is not really the problem, though. During a pandemic which has seen Wigan Athletic enter administration and Macclesfield Town go to the wall, as well as a projected £500 million loss in matchday revenue for Premier League clubs, you could almost forgive them for looking out for number one. These times, they are unprecedented, after all. No; the real conundrum is how long, with no immediate sign of a vaccine on the horizon, we can afford to delay resurrecting football from the homogenised, lowest-common-denominator iteration coronavirus has condensed it to.
At this point, it’s probably time to declare a vested interest. For the best part of my 16 years as an Evertonian, I’ve got my coat on, got moving, and sadly known the meaning of losing all too frequently. Witnessing Everton defeats first-hand certainly hurts, but never to the extent that I’ve ended up wishing I’d never left my sofa. Pilgrimages to Goodison Park are just as gratifying for the chance to reconvene with Evertonian friends and relatives, for the invaluable sense of escapism as all external worries are shoved to the back-burner as I immerse myself in an afternoon of strangers kicking a ball.
Like any sane human, I certainly don’t deny coronavirus’ presence or, in many cases, its severity. I act with discretion around others. I admit to having found some government measures overly cautious and disproportionate to the threat posed by coronavirus, but still adhere to government guidelines, irrespective of how counter-intuitive or contradictory they may sometimes seem. But simultaneously, I long to be back among my Blue brethren; a restlessness which, if anything, has only grown stronger with every game added to Everton’s current winning streak.
But the deepest issue of all here is just how many clubs could yet fall victim to the same fate which befell Macclesfield, and before them Bury last year. Only on September 28 was an open letter sent to the government warning many EFL and National League sides were ‘unable to meet their payroll obligations for next month,’ and that the English football pyramid risked collapse without financial intervention. Clubs outside the Premier League sphere, starved of their bread-and-butter matchday revenue (roughly one-fifth of their entire income), are almost losing money to play games currently, missing out on as much to £100,000 per match.
Truth is, too many of these clubs, through their own financial malpractice or otherwise, lived hand-to-mouth on the breadline even before COVID’s stranglehold. Now, the bubble in which they exist is barely sustainable as it is. It certainly won’t be any longer if benefactors desert them just as supporters have been forced to, or if the soil in Rishi Sunak’s magic money forest degrades.
It’s clearly too soon yet for a return to full stadia, but there feels enough evidence to suggest English football has the capacity to accommodate something closer to a happy medium. Brighton permitted 2,500 fans into their friendly against Chelsea at their 30,000-seater Amex Stadium in August, with chief executive Paul Barber saying they each reported feeling ‘overwhelmingly’ or ‘entirely’ safe with the measures in place. Medical chiefs discovered no spike in cases following the match. Seven EFL clubs then welcomed up to 1,000 supporters during the weekend of September 19-20; none of whom reported major difficulties thereafter.
Then there’s the so-called ‘non-elite’ clubs - teams in England’s seventh tier and below - who patently need the cash far more urgently but who are allowed to welcome spectators as (relatively) usual. As if a supporter of, say, Warrington Town, is less susceptible to the perils of coronavirus than, for instance, an Evertonian. Or as if the virus would simply be decent enough to spare them all, like some sort of COVID death angel passing over stadiums with blood-smeared doors, on account of them being ‘non-elite’.
Then again, the British government have been nothing if not consistently inconsistent. Naturally, when not confined to enclosed, indoor spaces - like, er, in virtually any English football stadium - it is far easier to adhere to social distancing, but virus transmission is also inevitably more arduous. Yet only last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to visit cinemas after the chain Cineworld suffered mass closures, affecting 45,000 jobs. This, after Vue theatres screened three Premier League matches on October 3.
Plans are also afoot for at least 3,000 to attend a Christmas performance at the Royal Albert Hall in December. Will that attract a more mild-mannered clientele than your average football match? Possibly. But equally, that assumption does a great disservice to those who would abide by restrictions at stadia, and who already did at the Amex in August and those seven EFL games in September. Not every football fan is a tanked-up tearaway; many, myself included, are so ravenous to return after seven months of cold turkey, they will literally take whatever they can get, with as many strings attached as clubs or authorities deem necessary.
“The fans being there makes a huge difference.”— talkSPORT (@talkSPORT) October 6, 2020
“Football has lost meaning without anyone watching it. It’s soulless.”
“Let fans in, save clubs, save the mental health of so many people.”@talkSPORTDrive calls on @OliverDowden to #LetFansIn pic.twitter.com/78ZaXzUOLN
So, yes, while I’m mindful of the dangers of coronavirus, there’s an element of self-interest in all of this, of course. I long for that next bustling Saturday morning train to Lime Street, that next pre-match pint in the Winslow, that next sweet release of joy as a feverish Goodison crowd bellows and limbs flail wildly.
But impatient as I am for this to all return, there’s a much more critical breaking point awaiting English football as we’ve known it far sooner. Eventually, winter will melt into spring, the old abnormal will truly become the new normal, the unprecedented the precedented. Certainly by then, the game can ill-afford to keep shuffling towards the precipice with pockets overflowing with loose change.
The petition urging Parliament to allow fans to return to football stadia has almost 195,000 signatures at time of writing. You can sign it by clicking here.